Image 'Aquarius 1841'

TLF ID R3319

This is a pen, ink and crayon drawing, measuring 18.8 cm x 26.8 cm, of a man driving a horse and cart, on the back of which is a full water barrel. Buildings and trees are sketched in the background and at the top right is a set of signalling flagpoles. A handwritten inscription at the bottom of the picture reads: 'Aquarius 1841 - How we got our water in the ante-Yan-Yean age'. There are several black marks on the picture where the ink has smudged.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset shows a water carrier in 1841 - despite being situated on the banks of a river, Melbourne grew so quickly in the middle of the 19th century that a reliable supply of fresh water was an urgent necessity; in 1841 Melbourne's population was already in the region of 8,000.
  • It shows one way that people in Melbourne received their water supply before the Yan Yean reservoir was completed in 1857 - in the 1840s men sold water door to door from their carts at three shillings a barrel (550 litres); the water was collected, via pumps, from the northern bank of the Yarra River.
  • It refers to the Yan Yean reservoir, designed by Melbourne city surveyor James Blackburn (1803-54), an ex-convict who had been transported from England to Tasmania for forgery - the reservoir was the largest public works project at that point in Victoria; it took just four years to complete, created one of the world's largest artificial lakes and was planned to cater for a population of 70,000.
  • It describes the period before 1857 as the 'ante-Yan-Yean' age, indicating that the reservoir was a turning point in Melbourne's history - the decision to build the reservoir on the Plenty River, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne, was a victory of commonsense over popular opinion; sceptics of the plan thought that the issues of labour and material shortages, poor water quality, lead poisoning from the metal pipes and the inability of the reservoir to supply the growing city would cause the project to fail, and they pushed for a more popular but short-sighted plan to pump water from Dights Falls in Abbotsford.
  • It illustrates a difficulty in preserving art works on paper - water has fallen on the drawing, causing the black ink to smudge.
  • It shows the artist's sense of irony through his title 'Aquarius' - the constellation and the eleventh zodiacal sign of the water-bearer have been translated into a harassed workman and his horse and cart.
  • It shows a trio of signalling flagpoles on the hill in the background, which would have been used to signal to ships in Port Phillip Bay.
  • It is an example of the work of George Gordon McCrae, a well-known and popular artist and poet whose early work reflected Aboriginal legends - his album of drawings gives useful insights into aspects of everyday life in Victoria in the latter half of the 19th century.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9

Learning area
  • History
  • Studies of society and environment

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: George Gordon McCrae
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: George Gordon McCrae
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements